What you can do about climate change

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Climate change is the largest crisis humanity has ever faced. It will necessarily reshape the entire infrastructure of civilization one way or another, and magnifies many other issues that people care about (environmental, racial, and economic justice, animal rights, etc.).

It’s terrifying. I find just thinking about it to be overwhelming, and often paralyzing, and I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one. Telling people to be worried without giving them constructive options isn’t super useful, so I wanted to share real, achievable, evidence-based actions for people who want to help, but don’t know where to begin.[1] I’m not an expert on any of these topics, but I recently re-broadcast some priorities I’d heard elsewhere.



  • Vote & make calls: policy is one of the largest levers we have. Make your voice heard. Tell your representatives and candidates that this is a top priority.
  • Advocate for radical city redesign to increase density and provide alternate transit options. Density is the #1 way to achieve lower environmental impact via benefits via heating & cooling, transit, slowing population growth, etc.


  • drive less
  • eat less beef
  • insulate your house

To get further clarity and more ideas, I asked my dear friend and green design expert Jer Faludi[2] for input. He was kind enough to write up a ranked list of suggestions for individual scale and large-scale impact, based on a series of thoroughly researched short videos he’s made, discussing the most impactful ways to make a difference.

Here’s what Jer said, lightly edited for clarity.

Your 3-item list is good for individuals making lifestyle changes, except I’d say:

#1 eat more veggies & less beef

#2 insulate your house or move into an apartment complex

#3 walk/bus/bike more

#4 get rooftop solar

To shoot higher, I’d say this: if you could invent or design anything to improve the state of the Earth, fixing not just greenhouse gases but also species extinction, water & resource depletion, pollution, here are your top priorities to help the planet.

  • Better cities:
    • make them more dense
    • create better transit options
  • Better buildings:
    • improve energy use, health, and material resource use
  • Better food:
    • improve land efficiency is #1
    • then pesticides & fertilizers
    • avoid beef, make veggie menus awesome,
    • invent cheap organic aquaponics, etc.
  • Cheaper clean energy
    • lower cost of grid energy storage is #1,
    • then solar & wind
  • Efficient transport of people (not things – shipping is a pretty low priority)
    • encourage walking, biking, transit, & telecommuting
  • Slow population growth
    • fixed by urbanizing & by empowering women via education, economics, and politics, especially in developing countries. Birth control alone is not enough.
  • For social sustainability,
    • fix income inequality, both globally and within the US
  • For political sustainability, fix voting mechanics
    • maximize the percent of the governed whose votes count, via proportional representation, ranked choice voting, no gerrymandering, campaign finance reform

Example solution areas:

– The #1 leverage point is actually to make cities denser and more livable: dense cities improve building energy & resource use (shared walls are better than the best insulation), fix transportation (walking, biking, and transit require density), and slow population growth (in many developing countries, birthrates fall by 1/2 or more from rural to urban), all at once. Make density affordable, politically easy, beautiful, and healthy.

– Many sustainability improvements already save people & companies money (like better buildings, clean energy, and efficient transport), they just require initial investments. Business models exist to enable this; scale them.

– You do not need to work in one of these industries to improve it, you can make an app for that. For example, the Google Maps transit feature has done more to increase transit use than any design project by any city transit agency.

Finally, I’m a huge fan of Alex Steffen’s writing about climate change. A take away from Alex: we can’t build a world we can’t imagine. We desperately need imaginative people to dream up and communicate how good the world will be. If you’re creative, start telling optimistic stories and inspiring the builders.

There is no single answer. We need all of the solutions. Find something you can do and contribute in your way as best you can. We need a lot of heroes.

Update: since writing this, I’ve been pointed to the excellent http://www.drawdown.org

[1] One of my first exposures to this sort of global to-do list was Bret Victor’s essay What Can a Technologist Do About Climate Change?

[2] In the fall of 2017, Jeremy Faludi will be joining Dartmouth University as a Assistant Professor of Green Design. He has a PhD from Berkeley in mechanical engineering, a Master’s from Stanford in product design, and a Bachelor’s in physics from Reed College. He dances often, and literally plays with fire.

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Visualization errors to avoid

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I wrote a blog post on avoiding visualization errors over at Information Week.

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Looper timeline

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I drew a timeline of the film Looper for Wired. It’s made of spoilers.

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Big news, new job at IBM… and moved on.

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Updated update: I’m no longer with IBM, and have taken a job in Settle with AWS.

Hello dear readers,

Just a quick note here to mention my new FT gig; I’m now working as a Visualization Expert at IBM’s Center for Advanced Visualization. Part of my role involves continuing to speak at conferences and events as I have been, and various other writing projects. Additionally, I’ll be working on a book for IBM (details TBD), writing some visualization white papers, blog posts, and other materials related to IBM’s visualization projects, and working with the fantastic teams who are devloping IBM’s public visualization tool Many Eyes and their new (unreleased) visualization engine RAVE.

I’m delighted by this new role. As I’ve been ramping up at IBM I haven’t been publishing as much externally, but will be posting links to my writing and presentations here and on twitter (@noahi) as they become available.

Best, Noah

UPDATE: Yes, I’m staying in Seattle.

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New book: Designing Data Visualizations

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I’m thrilled to announce my latest book, Designing Data Visualizations.

Cover of Designing Data Visualizations, written by Noah Iliinsky and Julie Steele, publshed by O'Reilly.

The goal of this book is to teach you the process of designing a visualization, presenting the important considerations, and informing the choices that you make. It’s tool-agnostic, and is entirely applicable to visualizations with high and low volumes of data, and to both quantitative and qualitative visualizations.

I was fortunate to have Julie Steele as my co-author on this book. Julie was the lead editor and a contributor to Beautiful Visualization.

The origins of my thinking on this topic lie in the work I did on my master’s thesis. This book benefits from an additional five years of experience and research on my part, as well as Julie’s vital insight, knowledge, and contributions.

For this book, we (the authors) are recommending the electronic version over the print version, as that will allow you easy access to updates and revisions as we add more examples and such. Also, the print edition will sadly be only in grayscale, whereas the electronic version will be full-color.
Update: looks like we’ll be providing a full-color download of the images so that people who buy the print edition don’t miss anything.

We’re very excited about this book. We hope you will be too.

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Presenting at Strata

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I’ll be speaking at Strata NY next week. My main talk is Designing Data Visualizations, on Friday the 23rd at 11:30am.

I’ll also be presenting at the Visualization Showcase Tuesday evening, and at Ignite Strata Wednesday evening.

On Friday at 1pm I’ll be at the O’Reilly booth, signing copies of Beautiful Visualization. Not sure if Designing Data Visualizations will be available in print by then, but if it is, I’ll be signing those too. (You probably want the electronic version of DDV anyway.)

Hope to see you there!

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Beautiful Visualization Chapter 1: On Beauty

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This is an excerpt from my chapter in Beautiful Visualization. You can download a pdf of the entire chapter.


Chapter One: On Beauty, by Noah Iliinsky

This chapter is an examination of what we mean by beauty in the context of visualization, why it’s a worthy goal to pursue, and how to get there. We’ll start with a discussion of the elements of beauty, look at some examples and counterexamples, and then focus on the critical steps to realize a beautiful visualization.

[I use the words visualization and visual interchangeably in this chapter, to refer to all types of structured representation of information. This encompasses graphs, charts, diagrams, maps, storyboards, and less formally structured illustrations.]

What is Beauty?
What do we mean when we say a visual is beautiful? Is it an aesthetic judgment, in the traditional sense of the word? It can be, but when we’re discussing visuals in this context, beauty can be considered to have four key elements, of which aesthetic judgment is only one. For a visual to qualify as beautiful, it must be aesthetically pleasing, yes, but it must also be novel, informative, and efficient.

For a visual to truly be beautiful, it must go beyond merely being a conduit for information and offer some novelty: a fresh look at the data or a format that gives readers a spark of excitement and results in a new level of understanding. Well-understood formats (e.g., scatterplots) may be accessible and effective, but for the most part they no longer have the ability to surprise or delight us. Most often, designs that delight us do so not because they were designed to be novel, but because they were designed to be effective; their novelty is a byproduct of effectively revealing some new insight about the world. keep reading…

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Why Apple isn’t worried about iPad competitors

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In a New York Times article entitled Rivals to the iPad Say This Is the Year, makers of would-be iPad competitors reveal their strategy. Tablet manufacturers “who have discussed their plans say they will both offer specific features that the iPad is lacking, and undercut their competitors on price.” (Emphasis mine.)

Reading this gave me a flashback to almost five years ago, when Samsung released an mp3 player that they hoped would compete with the iPod. It was a good product, and it was doomed to fail. David Pogue nailed it:

The iPod’s competitors have wasted years of opportunity by assuming that they can beat the iPod on features and price alone. They’re wrong.

In fact, at least six factors make the iPod such a hit: cool-looking hardware; a fun-to-use, variable-speed scroll wheel; an ultrasimple software menu; effortless song synchronization with Mac or Windows; seamless, rock-solid integration with an online music store (iTunes); and a universe of accessories. Mess up any aspect of the formula, and your iPod killer is doomed to market-share crumbs.

I predict that history will largely repeat itself. Apple doesn’t win because they provide more features, they win because they provide a more intentional design that results in a better experience. Many other tablets will be sold and loved (my friends love their Samsung Galaxy Tabs), but no device will present a credible threat to the iPad’s market dominance until it offers a similarly intentional, compelling, and coherent experience.

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Q&A on Beautiful Visualization

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I was recently asked some questions about the Beautiful Visualization (O’Reilly 2010) and my role as the technical editor and chapter contributor.

How did you end up working on Beautiful Visualization?
I was given the opportunity to work on the book because of my previous research and master’s thesis on methods of creating quality information visualizations.

Why is this book especially important now?
This is a particularly exciting time to be working with information visualization.

Visualization has become popular over the last few years. There have been some very good visualizations making it into the media and pop culture recently, and they have reached millions of people. Of note, the 2008 elections and current World Cup tournament have inspired dozens of visualizations that have received a lot of attention. Good visualizations are fun, educational, and engaging. People enjoy them, and some publications such as the New York Times and GOOD magazine are becoming known for their (generally high quality) work with information visualizations.
keep reading…

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